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WATCH: Robert E. Lee statue is removed in Richmond
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A crowd erupted in cheers and song Wednesday as work crews hoisted an enormous statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee off the giant pedestal where it has towered over Virginia's capital city for more than a century.
The piece, one of America's largest monuments to the Confederacy, was lifted away just before 9 a.m. as one of the construction workers who helped strap harnesses to Lee and his horse lifted his arms in the air and counted down, "Three, two, one!" to jubilant shouts from a crowd of hundreds.
Black Lives Matter signs were seen in the crowd. Some chanted "Whose streets? Our streets!" and sang, "Hey hey hey, goodbye."
The statue was lowered to the ground where it was expected to be cut into pieces so that it can be brought to a secure location, where it will be stored until its final disposition is determined.
One of America's largest monuments to the Confederacy, was taken down from its prominent perch after years of resistance and a long court battle. Among the crowd watching the removal, there did not appear to be any visible counterprotesters.
Gov. Ralph Northam ordered the statue taken down last summer, citing the pain felt across the country over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck. But until a recent court ruling cleared the way, Northam's plans had been tied up in litigation.
The statue, a 21-foot (6-meter) bronze equestrian sculpture that sits atop a pedestal nearly twice that tall, has towered above a prominent residential boulevard named Monument Avenue since 1890 in this former capital of the Confederacy.
Crews began work before 8 a.m. Wednesday. Two public viewing areas were set up, with only limited visibility. A crowd of about 200 people chanted "What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now!" as a work crew dwarfed by the size of the statue strapped red and blue harnesses to the Lee figure and his horse. The workers were lifted up to the statue on platforms.
The state brought in a deconstruction crew surrounded by a heavy police presence to strap the statue to a crane. State, capitol and city police officers closed streets for blocks around the state-owned traffic circle in Richmond, using heavy equipment and crowd-control barriers to keep crowds away. The Federal Aviation Administration granted the state's request to ban drone flights during the event, which will be livestreamed through the governor's Facebook and Twitter accounts.
"This is a historic moment for the city of Richmond. The city, the community at large is saying that we're not going to stand for these symbols of hate in our city anymore. And it was important for me to be here to see this historic moment," said Rachel Smucker, 28, a Richmond resident who was at the viewing site early Wednesday with her sister.
Smucker, who is white, said she moved to Richmond around three years ago. It was her first time living in the South, and she found Monument Avenue "jarring."
"I've always found it to be offensive, as a symbol of protecting slavery and the racism that people of color still face today," Smucker said.
The one-of-a-kind piece, valued for its artistic quality, stood among four other massive Confederate statues on the avenue, but the city removed the others last summer.
"We put things on pedestals when we want people to look up," Northam said in June 2020 when he announced the removal plan. "Think about the message that this sends to people coming from around the world to visit the capital city of one of the largest states in our country. Or to young children."
The statue's removal was expected to be completed Wednesday. Plans called for it to be cut into at least two pieces and hauled to an undisclosed state-owned facility until a decision is made about its final disposition. The pedestal is to remain for the time being, although workers are expected to remove decorative plaques and extricate a time capsule on Thursday.
After Floyd's death, the area around the statute became a hub for protests and occasional clashes between police and demonstrators. The pedestal has been covered by constantly evolving, colorful graffiti, with many of the hand-painted messages denouncing police and demanding an end to systemic racism and inequality.
The decisions by the governor and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney to remove the Confederate tributes marked a major victory for civil rights activists, whose previous calls over the decades to remove the statues had been steadfastly rebuked by city and state officials alike.
A previous wave of resistance to the statues came in 2017 when a rally of white supremacists in the city of Charlottesville erupted into violence. Other Confederate monuments started falling around the country.
But in Virginia, local governments were hamstrung by a state law that protected memorials to war veterans. That law was amended in 2020 by the new Democratic majority at the statehouse and signed by Northam. With the changes that took effect on July 1, 2020, localities could decide the monuments' fate.
Stoney then moved swiftly, citing the continuing demonstrations and concerns that protesters could get hurt if they tried to bring down the enormous statues themselves.
Work crews removed statues of Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Confederate naval officer Matthew Maury and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart from the thoroughfare. Before Stoney's decree, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Although the figures themselves are gone, their pedestals remain.
Northam's plans to remove the Lee statue stalled until the Supreme Court of Virginia cleared the way last week in unanimous rulings against two lawsuits, saying that in a democracy, "values change and public policy changes too."
The changes have remade the prestigious avenue, which is lined with mansions and tony apartments and is partly preserved as a National Historic Landmark district. Richmond officials are advancing plans to remove the pedestals and other remnants of the statuary and at least temporarily pave over or re-landscape the sites. Northam has tapped the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to lead a community-driven redesign for the whole avenue, a process that is expected to be drawn-out and has yet to make substantial progress.
A statue of Black tennis hero and Richmond native Arthur Ashe that was erected on the avenue in 1996 is expected to remain.
As for the Lee statue, Northam has said his administration will seek public input on what should happen to it next.
Associated Press writer Alan Suderman contributed to this report.